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Home / Science / Firefly's Alpha rocket for a massive upgrade with ion-thruster boost level ⚡ ⚡

Firefly's Alpha rocket for a massive upgrade with ion-thruster boost level ⚡ ⚡



Eric Ralph · June 18, 2019

Welcome to the latest issue of DeepSpace ! Every week, Teslarati space reporter Eric Ralph creates a hand-crafted newsletter that tells you what's going on in the space industry and what you need to know. To receive this newsletter (and others) directly and join our members-only Slack group, give us a three-month trial for just US $ 5 in a detailed update on its Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), an ambitious spacecraft hosted by the Launcher Alpha and Beta should complement. If Firefly is able to meet the technical promise of the independent spacecraft, the combination of Alpha (~ $ 1

5 million) and OTV could usher in a new era of small high-performance satellites launched on small high-performance rockets.

Rocket Lab – currently the only truly commercial provider of smallsat launches – has already demonstrated the power of this new paradigm, albeit on a smaller scale. After just one failed attempt, the company's first successful orbital launch of the company's electron rocket was also the surprise debut of a tiny third stage that orbited the payload's orbit. After five successful orbital operations, Rocket Lab has gone a step further in the third tier, adding redundant avionics, solar arrays and more to effectively create an independent spacecraft / satellite bus called Photon. Firefly's OTV is apparently much larger than Photon, but functionally pretty similar. Taking advantage of Alpha's significant performance advantages over Electron, Firefly has developed a third stage / spacecraft capable of transporting hundreds of kilograms into geostationary orbit, the moon, and (perhaps) beyond.

Changing the Delta V Game

  • In general, OTV is quite small. According to Firefly's Payload User's Guide, the spacecraft weighs only 130 kg (285 lb) dry and may carry 30-70 kg of xenon fuel for its electric ion thrusters. This is a crucial difference from Rocket Lab's photon and kick phase, which relies on the inefficient (but simple and reliable) Curie nuclear rocket engine.
    • According to Firefly, Alpha should bring a maximum of 1000 kg (2200 lb) into a 200 km (125 mi) deep Earth orbit (LEO). Given the ~ 200 kg wet mass of OTV, Alpha + OTV offers some incredible capabilities relative to the size and construction of the rocket.
    • Powerful electric engines undoubtedly add complexity to any spacecraft they use, but this pain is often considered valuable for the benefits they can offer. In particular, the ion drive is extremely efficient.
This graph shows the potential performance benefits of Alpha + OTV versus Alpha alone. (Firefly)
  • Thanks to OTV's efficient electric engines and lightweight carbon composite structure, the potential benefits of Alpha + OTV for a rocket that is (relatively) small, like Alpha, are hard to believe.
  • Alone, Alpha can only provide a meaningful performance payload (~ 100 kg) to perhaps 4,000 km. With OTV, Alpha can suddenly transport ~ 600 kg into a circular geostationary orbit (~ 36,000 km) and over 400-500 kg into orbit around the moon.
    • Although Alpha and OTV weigh approximately 10% of Falcon 9, they may provide 10-15% of Falcon 9's power for trans lunar injection (TLI). This contradicts the general rule of thumb that the performance of a rocket (especially on higher energy orbits) degrades disproportionately with decreasing velocity.
  • With OTV, Alpha – normally a US $ 15 million launcher relocated to LEO payloads – will become a fascinating option for small geostationary communication satellites and small public and private explorations of the Moon, near Earth asteroids and maybe even the Mars /Venus.[19659008

In the presence of an older Firefly investor and board member, Firefly hopes to have OTV ready for its orbital debut on Alpha's third launch, which is not scheduled to be completed until mid-2020.

  • Alpha is ready to start. Of course, OTV is a wingless bird without Firefly's Alpha launcher. Alpha is a two-stage rocket with 54,000 kg total weight, 1.8 m wide and 29 m high. Powered by four Reaver engines, the first stage will produce ~ 740 kN (166,000 lbf), which equates to approximately 85% of one of the nine Falcon 9 Merlin 1D engines. This is likely to come to an end in early 2020 due to the complexity of the task ahead. Crucially, however, Firefly has made great strides towards this goal.
    In particular, the second stage of Firefly – powered by a vacuum-optimized Lightning engine – has already qualified for launch with static fires over the entire duration at the company's Texas plants. Firefly is currently preparing for an identical series of qualifying tests for its stronger first stage, shown above in the form of a Reaver engine on an Alpha S1 thrust structure. Four Reaver engines are installed on the same thrust structure to perform static fire tests How SpaceX Merlin gradually added 1D engines during Falcon 9 development testing.
  • If everything goes as planned, Firefly will have completed its first alpha, first stage, second stage, and payload fairings by October or November 2019. Expect lots of new photos and updates when Alpha is about to launch.
  • ] Thank you for being a Teslarati reader! Join today to get a copy of DeepSpace in your inbox every week!

    – Eric





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